Saturday

19th Jun 2021

Opinion

Why Europe should stop worrying about 'sportswashing'

  • Who can forget Russia's hosting of the Winter Olympics in Sochi in 2014? No doubt Vladimir Putin's regime was hoping for a reputational boost, but the games ended in a PR disaster whose fallout lasted for years (Photo: FIFA)

The recent furore in the UK over whether prime minister Boris Johnson intervened in Saudi Arabia's failed bid to buy Newcastle United and the indignance of La Liga's chief Javier Tebas, in the controversy over United Arab Emirates-owned Manchester City and its alleged Financial Fair Play breaches, are just the latest instalments in the never-ending debate over 'sportswashing'.

Authoritarian regimes using prestigious sponsorship and the hosting of events in various sports to distract from their human rights records, or other malign actions, has been going on for decades and has generated thousands of headlines and much hysteria across Europe.

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This would be justified if the practice actually worked.

Credited to the 2015 Azerbaijani 'Sports for Rights' campaign, the term is now in vogue as the catch-all for governments looking to boost their international prestige through the unifying power of sport.

Examples stretch right back to the 1935 European Rowing Championships in Nazi Germany, and are as diverse as the 1958 Basque Pelota World Championships and the Bahrain Grand Prix.

New instances crop up all the time.

In March, Saudi Arabia was accused of spending $1.5bn on international sporting events to "obscure a human rights record of brutality, torture and murder", with its aborted $400m takeover of Newcastle United and a $145m deal with the Spanish Football Association in the spotlight.

And yet nothing has been 'washed' at all.

The 'Streisand' Effect

If anything, Saudi Arabia's patronage has attracted more attention to its poor human rights record and ruthless foreign policy than ever before. The Kingdom is never far from the headlines for its crackdown on dissent, the arrest of feminist activists and religious clerics, and its use of air strikes in the war in Yemen which some observers allege have led to the deaths of 8,000 civilians.

Sheikh Mansour bin Zayed Al Nahyan, the deputy prime minister of the United Arab Emirates, is effectively the owner of Manchester City and the UAE has poured millions into the club as part of a worldwide PR blitzkrieg to shore up the country's false image as the Middle East's most progressive state.

Sheikh Mansour, working under the auspices of the UAE's leader Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed, has embarked on a worldwide football club buying spree, everywhere from Melbourne to New York.

But where has it got them?

The UAE's international reputation is steadily being shredded by its own leadership in moves so blatant that no amount of sporting spin can hide them.

The country has been helping to keep the savage Maduro regime in power in Venezuela by assisting its sales of gold and crude oil, defying US sanctions against a dictatorship which has reportedly butchered 9,000 of its own citizens in 18 months for "resistance to authority".

The US Defence Department's inspector general released a report late last year that showed the US government was well aware that the UAE had been financially aiding the Wagner Group in Libya.

This mercenary force is widely seen as a proxy for Russian premier Vladimir Putin, fighting on behalf of warlords in Libya seeking to overthrow the rightful Tripoli government, who are supported by the EU and the UN.

That such covert support for the West's authoritarian enemies has been so widely-publicised and is freely-known shows how little sportswashing can hide.

No European journalist who has eyes in their head has been hoodwinked into believing either Saudi Arabia or the UAE don't have major issues that they must address simply because they're a prominent sporting patron. By owning clubs in European nations, both nations have brought these issues to the fore and made them tangible to a much broader audience than if they had remained as faraway countries with little impact for the average European citizen.

This capacity for sportswashing to backfire has been seen time and again.

Who can forget Russia's hosting of the Winter Olympics in Sochi in 2014? No doubt Vladimir Putin's regime was hoping for a reputational boost, but the games ended in a PR disaster whose fallout lasted for years.

Global coverage of its parlous, crumbling and unhygienic facilities, boycotts over human rights abuses, protests over Russia's "gay propaganda" laws, and a gigantic Russian state-sponsored doping scandal that saw it become a world leader in cheating, firmly reinforced the Russian government's reputation for both brutality and incompetence.

No doubt the moral panic over sportswashing will arise again in the lead up to next year's Winter Olympics in Beijing as China seeks to rehabilitate its sullied stature in the wake of its cover-up of coronavirus and its ethnic cleansing of the Uyghur Muslims.

Like the UAE, Saudi Arabia, and Russia, China will discover that sportswashing never works.

As the world drowns in the inevitable coverage of China's failings, turbo-charged by the games themselves, perhaps all these countries will realise that no amount of washing can remove stains that can only be erased through substantive and meaningful change.

Author bio

Damien Phillips is director of Proactive Public Affairs, and previously worked for the UN in Lagos, and the Adam Smith Institute.

Disclaimer

The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author's, not those of EUobserver.

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